Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
I last saw Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s biting 1990 musical less than two years ago, when its swirling fantasia about those who’ve made attempts, successful or not, on the lives of U.S. presidents seemed well-timed to some of the rhetoric being thrown around ahead of the 2012 election, even if the production itself wasn’t so incisive.
Kokandy Productions’ revival feels presciently timed in a different way. We’ve seen no new presidential assassination attempts in the interim, thank goodness. But we have seen an alarming number of school shootings, from Newtown, Connecticut to Seattle Pacific University. And then there are the intentionally intimidating demonstrations by open-carry advocates, strapping on their assault rifles at Home Depots and Chipotles to the point where even the NRA is telling them to simmer down.
All of which makes Sondheim’s ironic paeans to the power of a firearm, and its ability to enshrine its user’s name in infamy, so gut-punching at the moment Rachel Edwards Harvith’s new staging arrives, when credible news organizations are actually quibbling about which shootings that take place at schools count as “school shootings.”
It helps that Harvith’s ensemble and band deliver the best-sung and best-acted Assassins I’ve seen, to the point that it’s hard to single anyone out. But Jason Richards stakes out an impressive claim as Samuel Byck, who made a half-hearted claim on the life of Richard Nixon; Byck is often played as a buffoon in this show, but Richards, in his pair of monologues, makes his man a seriously gripping character.
Patrick Byrnes’s Leon Czolgosz, the killer of William McKinley, is also quite affecting in his impotent frustration, and Neala Barron makes a strong impression as Sara Jane Moore, a ditzy attempted shooter of Gerald Ford, and the early 20th-century activist Emma Goldman; Eric Lindahl is a surprisingly seductive John Wilkes Booth.
But really, Harvith’s revival is astonishingly packed, from Cole Doman’s Balladeer as the embodiment of the American Dream to Jeff Meyer’s Proprietor as America’s rock bottom. The director smartly eliminates the small chorus, instead employing Meyer to designate the assassins to serve as the additional characters in each other’s scenes—a small but chilling move.
Harvith also departs from the conceit, originated in the piece’s Broadway debut in a 2004 revival by Roundabout Theatre Company, that the same actor plays both the Balladeer and, in the climactic scene, Lee Harvey Oswald. Instead, Nathan Gardner’s Oswald is allowed to lurk, observing, through most of the play. But he’s also tapped by the Proprietor early on to serve as Booth’s co-conspirator, David Herold. Assassins has long been viewed as lesser Sondheim, but I've always found it one of the composer's most affecting—and Kokandy’s production best proves why, making manifest in its staging the idea that these lone gunmen are really part of a lethal lineage.